Side Effects (2013)

Reviewing a film like Side Effects poses a bit of a challenge, as revealing the aspect of it that will make or break it for most people will likely be the very thing that spoils that aspect for many viewers as well.   With that in mind, this review, fittingly,  will be as challenging as the movie itself ends up being, though I do encourage potential viewers to just watch the movie before reading up too much about it.  It has a great director and a solid cast, and very intriguing, important subject matter, so it’s a gamble that will likely work in your favor.

For the daring, and for those who’ve already seen the film, here is the review as spoiler-free as I can make it without revealing key plot points:

The film starts with a young woman named Emily Taylor (Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) greeting her husband Martin (Tatum, Haywire) as he is released from a four-year stint in prison for insider trading.  Although their reunion is a happy occasion, Emily can’t shake a profound unhappiness she had been feeling since Martin went away, and it has only gotten worse in his return, as she suffers from depressed feelings that are sometimes overwhelming. Driving a car into a brick wall overwhelming.  The psychiatrist who treats Emily after her suicidal outburst is Dr. Jonathan Banks (Law, Anna Karenina), who prescribes Zoloft at first, but when it seems to have side effects that make her feel worse, he decides to go with a new drug called Ablixa, suggested by Emily’s former doctor, Victoria Siebert (Zeta-Jones, Rock of Ages).  Ablixa seems to be working great in all the right ways, except for one: she sleepwalks at night, cranking up her music and making meals in the middle of the night, and she’s unaware of them when she wakes.  And things only get worse from there.

Writer Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum), who worked with director Soderbergh (Ocean’s 12Ocean’s 13) on his topical drama, Contagion, continues to delve into important, news-worthy scenarios with Side Effects, which, for most of its run time, explores such controversial topics as the casualization of prescription drugs, the shady dealings of U.S. pharmaceutical companies who use the public as their lab rats, and the power given to psychologists in terms of how they can manipulate and control their patients, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.  Much of what Burns uses in his screenplay is the result of excellent research, examining the many instances where competing interests overlap, resulting in a patient receiving less-than-adequate care.  Some of those interests also result in one party taking advantage of a flawed system, both in the medical field as well as judicial.  In the end, the film is about all of these things and more, as Burns brings forth a more conventional narrative angle, with a somewhat Hitchcockian bent (especially Vertigo, in its essence, though without the directorial virtuosity)though, interestingly, Soderbergh never changes the straightforward clinical drama tone in the slightest.

Perhaps the most disconcerting thing that many viewers will feel about Side Effects, which is, at its core, a mystery within a mystery about just who is to blame for the ill developments that occur after Emily’s switch to a new drug to combat her depression, is that there is so much emphasis on the psychological aspects of the drug culture and symbiotic relationship between doctors and the pharmaceutical industry, that when it becomes a one-man crusade to restore his credibility, as well as his rep with his family, some viewers will likely feel mixed.  It’s an unconventional hybrid, and one that feels disconcerting, until you realize that the film is called Side Effects for another reason.  It’s not only about the side effects that can occur during the consumption of drugs, but also the side effects of the actions of the characters within the film itself, and how each particular action causes unfortunate collateral casualties to others who just happen to be in the way.

Soderbergh’s technique is subdued but effective, even when it gets a little silly and sensationalized, but the actors do sell it, with especially strong performances by Rooney Mara as the troubled and naive patient and Jude Law as the well-meaning but growingly vindictive psychiatrist.  There really are two movies here, one ensconced within the other.  One is a very smart and erudite film drama about serious ethical issues revolving around the mental health industry.  The other is the hidden mystery underneath that might make for an altogether different kind of story in a Hollywood thriller about the power plays that occur among the characters within the industry expose, as they clash with each other until there is a obvious victor.  The film does deliver on both fronts, though there will still be some people who exit the film quite confused about how a story could set up about one thing and deliver another within it in its third act, especially when one is rooted in reality while the other is pure movie entertainment.

Director Soderbergh made some noise during the production of Side Effects about it being his final theatrical feature film. If true, he is a voice in cinema that will be truly missed, as he is one of a very few who can make films that generate artistic talking pieces or well-made conventional blockbusters, and do them with equal finesse.  Interestingly, he ends his feature film career with a movie that gives us a blend of both of these opposing sensibilities.  If he’s feeling burnt out, we can only hope he finds that magic pill that rejuvenates his enthusiasm for making interesting and entertaining movies once more.

Qwipster’s rating: A-

MPAA rated: R for sexuality, nudity, violence and language
Length: 106 min.

Cast: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum, Ann Dowd, Vinessa Shaw, Polly Draper
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay: Scott Z. Burns